Outside Off Broadway, an old garage turned rock club in Cherokee-Lemp, one of St. Louis’s historic districts, where mewithoutYou will play in just a few hours, I’m ushered into the band’s tour bus. Even with all the bus windows cracked, it’s well over 90 degrees.
“Hello,” mewithoutYou frontman Aaron Weiss says, distant but polite. He has a modest beard and eyebrows with plenty of vertical action. In person, he’s surprisingly diminutive. After some polite waffling about whether to talk in the bus or outside, we move outside; I worry briefly about the line of fans still congesting the doors of the venue. We head around the back of the building and there, impossibly, is a small garden with several fruit trees and a bench. It’s much cooler in the tiny orchard.
Weiss is a weird dude. He used to live at the Simple Way, a commune in Philadelphia. He’s been known to eat food out of trashcans. He doesn’t own a phone or use Facebook, though he admits to me that he has a borrowed phone around somewhere for use on tour. He spends an inordinate amount of time philosophizing about celibacy and the ego. He’s not interested in preserving, or even presenting, an image; he speaks of his occasional suicidal thoughts with the same equanimity as he discusses James Joyce’s rhetorical techniques in Ulysses. He’s virtuosic in his self-deprecation, quick to use words such as “hypocritical” about himself and his lifestyle. He’s also one of the finest lyricists in indie rock, penning dense and allusive songs, ecstatic as Beat poetry, but more substantive.
When I ask how the tour—which is taking the band from Philadelphia to California in support of their new album, Pale Horses—is going, Weiss says it’s “pretty great. Better than average.” He adds that communication between the band, which includes his brother, Mike, who plays guitar, is typical, which is to say, “not stellar.” When I suggest that the claustrophobia of the bus and the endless monotony of the road would get on anyone’s nerves, he refuses the easy out: “It’s not just the time on this tour. Of course, you have a whole history and you have a backlog of miscommunications and divisions and resentments that carry over into subsequent tours. It’s hard to start over again and again and again. Trying to find a way to start over and see everyone anew, with fresh eyes, and not come with negative judgments and expectations. But I like it. I think it’s a good exercise for learning how to communicate, to take criticism.”
That’s how he talks, at length and in a considered, slightly reedy voice—at once personal and deeply reflective, even metaphysical. The implication is that, soon, there might be a time when the band will be unwilling to start over again. By the end of the recording process for Pale Horses, an album saturated with apocalyptic imagery, he says he was “totally drained, like I had nothing more to say.” He continues: “I can’t imagine two years from now, or whenever this one runs its course, having any desire at all to write another song, let alone an album. Sometimes I’ve thought it might be a good album to end our career on, one about the end of the world. I have no intention of quitting. It’s just that I try to stay open and ready for change and for growth, and that, I know, is going to involve discontinuing my musical career at some point, and I’m okay with that.”
That career started in 2002 with [A->B] Life, a raw, angsty mess of an album, almost entirely without melody, on which Aaron screams lyrics about suffering, suicide, and loneliness over propulsive drums and a low wall of guitar noise. But he was already engaging in the eclectic quotation, including Kurt Vonnegut and the 17th-century English poet John Donne on the same track, that would become a byword for the band. (Aaron was even once approached after a show and accused of plagiarism because he failed to cite his influences in the liner notes.)
mewithoutYou’s subsequent three albums moved them further and further away from their hardcore debut. The nadir of this arch, 2009’s it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright, resonated closely with the freak-folk aesthetic of Neutral Milk Hotel and early Animal Collective. The complex, interlocking guitar riffs and scowling rhythms of previous albums disappeared almost entirely, along with Weiss’s screams and rapid declamatory style, replaced by tubas, hummed melodies, and rapturous orchestration. The shifts created, or revealed, fault lines: Half the band stayed home for portions of the next tour, and Aaron, Mike, and Mike’s wife traveled as the Weiss Family Show. That’s probably the closest they’ve come to calling it quits, Aaron says. The two albums since then, Ten Stories and Pale Horses, are more collective efforts, musically diverse, ranging over the full topography of their sound.
Weiss’s position as a frontman initially came with a specific mission: to love God and each other. If that seems like a fairly typical statement from a band signed, at that time, with Tooth & Nail, a Christian alt-rock label, it becomes more interesting given a bit of knowledge about the Weiss family. Aaron and Mike’s father, though raised Jewish, converted to Sufism, a mystic strain of Islam influenced by Hinduism, while still self-identifying as Jewish. Their mother, raised Episcopalian, also converted to Sufism. The Weiss brothers’ parents met at the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship and Mosque outside of Philly, where both Muhaiyaddeen and Aaron and Mike’s father are now buried. Muhaiyaddeen’s stories and teachings were part of Aaron’s early intellectual food, many of which later ended up in mewithoutYou’s lyrics.